The Foundation of Japanese Buddhism

From Korea to Japan
King Song of Paekches Memorial on Buddhism
(c. 552 CE)
This doctrine is among all doctrines the most excellent, but it is hard to explain and hard to comprehend. Even the Duke of Zhou and Confucius could not attain a knowledge of it. This doctrine can create religious merit and retribution without measure and without bounds, and so lead on to a full appreciation of the highest wisdom. Imagine a man in possession of treasures to his heart’s content, so that he might easily satisfy all his wishes in proportion as he used them. Thus it is with the treasure of this wonderful doctrine. Every prayer is fulfilled and naught is wanting. Moreover, from distant India it has extended hither to Korea, where there are none who do not receive it with reverence as it is preached to them. [Sources of Japanese Tradition, 100]

Nara Buddhism
Emperor Yomei’s son, Prince Shotoku (574-622), is honored by tradition as the founder of Japanese Buddhism. ... In 594, Shotoku issued an imperial decree that urged all people to accept the Three Refuges of Buddhism as the highest refuge for all living beings. In 604, he issued the Constitution in Seventeen Articles, a set of rules for government officials based on Buddhist, Confucianist, and Shinto teachings. ... To learn more about Buddhism, Prince Shotoku initiated diplomatic relations with China and sent official delegations of monastic scholars to China for study. It was because of this initiative that the Six Schools of Japanese Buddhism were founded based on Chinese models. As the pro-Chinese Fujiwara clan replaced the Soga clan as the dominant force in the imperial court, the new Chinese-based Buddhist schools began to grow into an intellectual and political force in Japan. This influence can be seen in the new capital of Japan established in 710 in the present-day city of Nara. The city was modeled on the Chinese capital of Chang’an, and the plan for Nara included Buddhist temples at several strategic places. Emperor Shomu (ruled 724-749) ordered the building of the famous temple, Todai-ji, that enshrined a huge statue of Vairocana Buddha, fifty-three feet tall and made of 450 tons of bronze gilded with gold. This “Great Eastern Temple,” dedicated in 757, was the centerpiece of the Nara system of Buddhist temples. It became the headquarters of the Kegon (Chinese: Huayan) School as well as a place associated with other Buddhist schools. In 741, Emperor Shomu also ordered the construction of two provincial temples (one for monks and one for nuns) in each province. In this positive environment, the Six Nara Schools flourished. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 310-1]
& its Daibutsu


The Heian Period
At the end of the Nara Period, the Buddhist schools had gained immense economic, political, and social power in Japan. Wealthy clans could donate land to monasteries and still receive income from that land. So monasteries came to represent the interests of rich landowners. Also, the government granted rice land and tax-exempt privileges to each of the regional temples. Todai-ji itself housed 4,000 families to cultivate its land and had over 100 slaves. The acquisition of such wealth and power brought corruption and the need for reform. This situation is a partial reason why the government moved the capital from Nara in 794 and established its new capital in the city of Heian, known later as Kyoto. In this way, it hoped to escape the influence of the powerful monasteries in Nara. With the seat of political power in Heian, two new Buddhist schools began to develop near the capital. These schools are the Tendai and Shingon traditions that produced distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism, which both drew on and synthesized the ideas and practices of the Nara Schools. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 314-5]
While Tendai is the Japanese version of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism, some major innovations distinguish the Japanese version from its Chinese parent. These innovatios are credited to Saicho (767-822), the founder of Tendai. ... In China, he studied Tiantai at the headquarters of that school on Mt. Tiantai. He also studied Chan, the Vinaya, and Tantric forms of Chinese Buddhism. When Saicho returned to Japan, he developed a synthesis of Tiantai doctrine and practice, Chan meditation, Tantric practice and ritualism, Pure Land recitation, and Vinaya discipline. Although Saicho stressed the teachings of the Tiantai tradition, the practices of these other traditions were woven into his new school. ... On Mt. Hiei, Saicho established two study areas to train his monks for this spiritual journey: One was devoted to study of the Lotus Sutra, and the other was for Tantric studies. Before entering these areas, one had to take the Mahayana precepts and make a special vow not to leave Mt. Hiei for twelve years. During those twelve years of seclusion, the discipline of Tendai was rigorous to say the least. The moral, ritual, and sutra training was complemented by a meditation method called shikan, meaning “concentration and insight.” ...
Four particular types of meditation practice are also used in Tendai to foster the experience of the inner purity of one’s Buddha-nature. First is a ninety-day practice during which one does “silent-sitting” meditation in the lotus posture while facing a Buddha image. During that time, one is allowed to chant the name of a single Buddha or bodhisattva to focus the mind. Second is another ninety-day practice that includes “walking” meditation, whereby one circumambulates a statue of Amida Buddha, as Amitabha was called in Japan, and chants repititions of Amida’s name. Third is a thirty-day practice of “half-sitting and half-walking” meditation. At first, one focuses the mind on Tantric images and symbols and chants mantras while walking around a Buddha image prior to sitting in meditation. Then one venerates the Buddha, chants passages from the Lotus Sutra, and practices repentance for one’s false views about reality. Finally, there is the practice of what is called “non-walking and non-sitting” meditation, which is observed in all of one’s daily life. Here, one focuses on sutra chanting and living the Vinaya precepts. One reflects on the image of Kannon (Avalokitesvara) Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva of compassion, as one flavors all daily activities with compassion. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 316-7]